Saturday, September 22, 2007


Click on the title to link to a "YouTube" film clip of Pete Seeger performing performing the classic coal country song "Which Side Are You On?" That tells the tale on this entry.

Markin commentary:

The headline of a recent news item from the Associated Press reported that the AFL-CIO, one of the two main labor federations in America, was trying to raise 200 million dollars and round up 200, 000 volunteers. At first glance my response was-be still, my heart. Why? I thought the American labor bureaucracy was finally responding to the drastic decline in trade union membership by rolling up its sleeves and going out to organize the unorganized workers who desperately need such collective action. I had visions of the money going a long way to fund the estimated 3000 full time labor organizers that many sources have stated are necessary in order to successfully organize Wal-Mart. Or some cash might go to organize the notoriously anti-union sweat shops in the South, the first stop on the run away shop trail in the global race to the bottom. And maybe a few dollars might be thrown in to defend the masses of immigrant workers against the current governmental onslaught and a fight for a real amnesty program for undocumented workers. I also thought the 200, 000 volunteers might be the ready reserves organized to defend any labor actions that might ensue from the above stated tasks. Silly me.

After reading the fine print what the story detailed was the apparently fervent wish of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy to raise 200 million dollars and find 200,000 volunteers in order to 'support', presumably Democratic Party, candidates and issues in the upcoming 2008 elections- by any means necessary. The article noted rather poignantly that this same labor group raised about 150 million for the ill-fated 2004 presidential and congressional elections. And got no return on that investment. No figure was given for last year’s congressional elections but one can assume that it was substantial. And for all those millions spent, what result? To date- mainly an almost criminally inadequate raise to seven dollars and some change in the federal minimum wage. It does not take a capitalist financial wizard like Warren Buffet to know that this is a poor investment of one’s financial resources. As a unionist I have fought against, and have urged other unionists to fight against, use of COPE money for contributions to political parties and candidates. Organizing the unorganized, organizing Wal-Mart, organizing the South? Yes ,that is where I want my dues money to go.

Below are a few recent commentaries on this subject. As this is being posted the GM autoworkers are on strike. Thus, the first comment.



As of September 24, 2007, after a break down in negotiations the General Motors autoworkers went out on a nation-wide strike. In the old days, in the 1930 and 1940’s, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union was created and solidified by fierce class battles. This action evokes memories of those times although then the fight was centrally around wages and working conditions. Today, in the age of ‘globalization’ (meaning, in reality, most of the same capitalists like GM fighting it out in the world market rather than in nationally isolated markets) the fight is against the corporation- driven race to the bottom. The issues of health care, pensions, outsourcing and job guarantees are what drive today’s struggles. And the prospects are not pretty.

Take the case of heath care provision. General Motors (and, ultimately, the other auto makers) want to foist that responsibility onto the union with some kind of trust fund arrangement. I think an unidentified UAW local president in Detroit made the most eloquent response to that idea. His response: Why should the union be responsible for cutting off the health benefits to its own membership as health costs continue to spiral or a member reaches the plan maximum. Make no mistake this scheme is not some step in the fight for workers’ control of working conditions. The company is merely trying to bail out from its own mistakes. Ditto on the under- funded pension plans. However, GM is more than happy to try to lock the union into an agreement on outsourcing to their other plants internationally in order to cut costs. This, they know how to do as the decline in membership of the UAW dramatically shows. In the end that means poorer working conditions not only here but also internationally. To mitigate the problem of outsourcing it is not enough to call for job protection. Also necessary is an international organizing drive to unionize all autoworkers.

One of the most compelling pieces of data that I have run across lately on the labor movement is from an article on globalization in which it was stated that today there are as many auto workers as in the past but only about a third of them are organized. Today GM has 73,000 UAW autoworkers. In the past there were several times that number. As we support the current UAW action let us remember this for the future. The same can be said for the other members of the Big 3. And while we are at it since all autoworkers will ultimately be affected by the GM action- extend the picket lines to the other Big 3. Call out the whole UAW to defend this strike. VICTORY TO THE GM AUTO WORKERS!

Labor Scorecard 2007


This writer entered the blogosphere in February 2006 so this is the second Labor Day scorecard giving his take on the condition of American labor as we approach Labor Day. And it is not pretty. That, my brothers and sisters, says it all. There was little strike action this year. The only notable action was among the grossly overworked and underpaid naval shipbuilders down in anti-union bastion Mississippi in the spring and that hard fought fight was a draw, at best. Once again there is little to report in the way of unionization to organize labor’s potential strength. American workers continue to have a real decline in their paychecks. The difference between survival and not for most working families is the two job (or more) household. In short, the average family is working more hours to make ends meet. Real inflation in energy and food costs has put many up against the wall. Moreover the bust in the housing market has wrecked havoc on working people as the most important asset in many a household has taken a beating. Once again forget the Federal Reserve Bank’s definition of inflation- one fill up at the pump confounds that noise. One does not have to be a socialist economist to know that something is desperately wrong when at the beginning of the 21st century with all the technological advances and productivity increases of the past period working people need to work more just to try to stay even. Even the more far-sighted bourgeois thinkers have trouble with that one. In any case, here are some comments on the labor year.

*The key as it was last year, is the unionization of Wal-Mart and the South. The necessary class struggle politics that would make such drives successful would act as a huge impetus for other areas of the labor movement. This writer further argues that such struggles against such vicious enemies as Wal-Mart can be the catalyst for the organization of a workers party. Okay, okay let the writer dream a little, won’t you? What has happened this year on this issue is that more organizations have taken up the call for a consumer boycott of Wal-Mart. That is all to the good and must be supported by militant leftists but it is only a very small beginning shot in the campaign (See archives, dated June 10, 2006). National and local unions have taken monies from their coffers not for such a worthy effort as union organizing at Wal-Mart but to support one or another bourgeois electoral candidate. Some things never change.

*The issue of immigration has surfaced strongly again this year, especially in presidential politics. Every militant leftist was supportive of the past May Day actions of the vast immigrant communities to not be pushed around, although one should also note that they were not nearly as extensive as in 2006. Immigration is a labor issue and key to the struggle against the race to the bottom. While May Day and other events were big moments unless there are links to the greater labor movement this very promising movement could fizzle. A central problem is the role of the Democratic Party and the Catholic Church in the organizing effort. I will deal with this question at a latter time but for now know this- these organizations are an obstruction to real progress on the immigration issue. (See archives, dated May 1, 2006)

*If one needed one more example of why the American labor movement is in the condition it is finds itself then yet another article this summer by John Sweeney, punitive President of the AFL-CIO, and therefore one of the titular heads of the organized labor movement brings that point home in gory detail. The gist of the article is that the governmental agencies, like the National Labor Relations Board, have over the years (and here he means, in reality, the Bush years) bent over backwards to help the employers in their fight against unionization. Well, John, surprise, surprise. Needless to say this year his so-called Democratic friends in Congress were not able to pass simple legislation to formally, at least, protect the right to unionization, the so-called 'employees’ bill of rights'. That was a non-starter from the get-go. No militant leftist, no forget that, no militant trade unionist has believed in the impartiality of governmental boards, agencies, courts, etc. since about 1936. Yes, that is right, since Roosevelt. Wake up. Again this brings up the question of the leadership of the labor movement. And I do not mean to turn it over to Andy Stein and his Change to Win Coalition. We may be, as some theorists imagine, a post-industrial society, but the conditions of labor seem more like the classic age of rapacious capitalist accumulation in the 19th century. We need a labor leadership based on a program of labor independence and struggle for worker rights- and we need it damn soon.

Organize the Coal Miners!


In my recent Labor Scorecard 2007 commentary (see September 2007 archives) and elsewhere I have noted that a key to the revitalization of the American labor movement is the unionization of Wal-Mart and the South, two giant tasks that would go a long way to a return of labor militancy. In short, organize the unorganized. Those tasks are still central to recovery however the recent mine disaster at the Crandall Canyon Mines in Utah and last year’s disaster at Sago, West Virginia have brought to mind how precarious conditions are in the mines. And that is not even to speak of the seemingly daily disasters in the Chinese mines and elsewhere. Tunneling deep underground is just not a safe operation under any circumstances. Impelled by the profit motive, as Crandall Canyon so graphically demonstrated, it can be nothing short of industrial murder. I have also read a recent article on the state of unionization in the American automobile industry which was at one time almost totally unionized. The most dramatic statistic that I gathered from that article was that while there are almost as many auto workers as there were at the height of the unions today only one third of that work force is unionized. Thus, an expansion drive for membership of these previously militant unions, in effect a reorganization, is on the agenda today.

Historically some of the most dramatic labor battles in America involved the United Mine Workers and other miners’ unions. One need only think of the “Molly McGuires” in the Pennsylvania coal fields, the names Ludlow, Butte, Coeur d’Alene, the Western Federation of Miners led by the legendary “Big” Bill Haywood and of other lesser known class struggles led by him and the International Workers of the World (IWW, Wobblies). The names roll off the tongue in endless succession. More recently one remembers the great battles in the Eastern mines, especially West Virginia, up to the 1970’s. If one location epitomized theses long labor struggles one need only mention one name Harlan, famous in story and song, in the hills of Kentucky to remember when militant miners knew how to fight (as well as the built-in limitations to a successful fight, as well). My father, before he escaped the coal fields by joining the Marines in World War II, ‘worked the coal’ as a boy and young man around Hazard, Kentucky, another legendary mining name. He had many a story to tell about those experiences and it is a measure of how bad it was that he happily went into the Marines in order to escape that life. One lesson that he imparted to me and one that offers us hope is the tradition, honored more in the breech that the observance now, of the miners-Picket lines mean don’t cross. Every militant needs to have that slogan etched in his or her brain.

That said, today’s coal economics do not make the task any easier than in earlier times. Coal production has had a very stormy and topsy-turvy history and unemployment and abandonment of worked-over mines is only part of the story. Recently, however with the increased price of other fossil fuels, mainly oil, the coal ‘clean or dirty’ has become more valuable. Thus, old unsafe mines and other formerly forgotten fields are being worked today by the same old greedy capitalist investors that we all remember from the ‘age of the robber barons’. Moreover the location of the fields in remote areas and, frankly, the parochialism and localism of the work force make organizing as difficult as it always has been. Add to the mix, as noticeable in Crandall Canyon, the waves of immigrants swarming to the fields in search of desperately needed work and that is a handful. Yes, those are all problems to be confronted during a fight but the most serious problem is the lack of interest of today’s leadership of the Mine Workers and of the AFL-CIO to make this fight. And that is where our fight has to begin.

Lest I be accused of the dreaded sin of ‘dual unionism’ let me make clear that this fight to reorganize the miners has to begin with the current organized union structures as a matter of common sense. Tackling the individual, disparate owners piecemeal with local unions is not the way forward. We want one big industry-wide, nation-wide (or for that matter, world-wide) union. End of story. What we do not want to do is rely on the good graces of governmental agencies, in this case, the Mine Safety and Health Administration. As the results of Crandall Canyon demonstrate reliance on this toothless (for labor) agency is a sure sign of defeat before we start.

A central demand beyond the traditional ones of union recognition, wages and working conditions is the absolute necessity to fight for a workers safety committee controlled by the union that would prohibit work in unsafe mines and address other mine safety issues. Let us be clear again this is not some tripartite (labor, capitalist, government) committee but a union one. If one wants to know what the embryonic stages of workers control of production under capitalism but before socialism should look like that should be our model. It is a life and death struggle. All trade union militants should be demanding that instead of using your hard earned dues to elect one or another of the bourgeois candidates in 2008 that those dues go to organizing the mines. That, my friends, is the beginning of labor wisdom now. As the legendary labor organizer Joe Hill reputedly said before his execution in Utah for the 'sin' of organizing- Don’t mourn, Organize!

Thursday, September 20, 2007





Seemingly it is impossible for news coming out of Iraq in an average week to be anything but unrelentingly macabre and mind-boggling. Case in point- Over the weekend of September 15, 2007 a shooting incident occurred resulting in at least several deaths and injuries involving the 'private' security company Blackwater. Blackwater provides ‘support services’ to many American governmental agencies, in this case the U.S. State Department, in Iraq so initially the news seemed like just one more case of these otherwise unemployable cowboys getting out of hand and becoming panicky under ‘fire’. Needless to say Blackwater has denied all responsibility (and liability) for their actions. Moreover, they argue, even if things did get a little out of hand there may have been insurgents within a hundred miles of their employer’s destination so creation of a ‘free-fire zone’ was an appropriate response. When I first read the report I purposefully held off comment because I was not sure which way the thing was heading, if any. Over the last several years there had been occasional reports on the doings of these so-called wildcat ‘service providers’. Now all hell has broken loose over the weekend shootings with the Iraqi government threatening reprisals and suspensions of permits. What gives?

Those of us who oppose this war, and particularly those of us who have fought it under the slogan of immediate withdrawal of all troops from Iraq, have been following the bouncing ball of timetables and ‘official’ troop drawdowns. In the meantime we have either ignored or downplayed the role that mercenaries (and frankly while these Blackwater agents and others may not satisfy that definition under international law that is what they are) have played in the ‘shadow war’. These are not nature’s noblemen (and women) but the dregs dragged from the hills of Arkansas, Idaho and the retirement communities around military bases, among others locales. Moreover, these people provide as much an ‘armed and dangerous’ threat to the Iraqi population as the ‘official’ troops. While the numbers are somewhat in dispute- ranging from 20,000 to 50,000- this is, in effect, a parallel ‘unofficial’ very well paid American army. As the reports have dribbled out of previously unreported (or under-reported) incidents a number of unidentified Iraqi civilians have alleged that they fear the ‘officials’ less than these rogue elements. Nice, right?

It is not as though we have not had our own experiences with these types. In the American Revolution we had to face those damn Hessians that George III (as far as I know not related to the current George, except politically in their joint fetishistic attachment to the prerogatives of the divine right of kings) send over to roust the rustics. By all reports the Hessians were the same kind of cutthroat hell-raisers as these foreign legionnaires who are strutting around in Iraq today. What does all this mean politically? Damn, as if we did not have enough to do in the withdrawal fight we now have to get out the old posters and rewrite our slogan- Immediate Withdrawal of All American Troops and Mercenaries from Iraq! Hessians Out! Oh yes, by the way, it would not be a bad idea to start subscribing to Soldier of Fortune magazine to see what the cowboys are up to these days. Enough said.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007




Over the past few weeks the leading Democratic presidential contenders, highlighted this week by Hillary Clinton’s plan, have spent time presenting their proposals for health care reform and/or creation of a national health care system. The Republicans simple program, in contrast, seems to follow my late, dearly departed grandmother’s advise- Don’t get sick. Sometimes, and health care is one of those issues, militants get dragged into current controversies where we do not like any of the proposals but we nevertheless have to make some comment to clear the political air on the subject. This seems to be such a time.

Please follow my reasoning on the question of health care. In a civilized society, and for that matter even uncivilized ones, everyone from the tiniest infant to those long of tooth deserves to be healthy. Thus it is a societal obligation to insure that condition. That will moreover still be the case, if not more so, under an advanced socialist society until we get a much better grip on how to handle the still pervasive mysteries of the human body than we have now. Once one assumes that insuring the health of our fellows is a societal task then the solution is practically a ‘no-brainer’. Our underlying slogan in this fight is not just ‘universal’ health coverage for all but free universal health care for all. In short, the real socialized health care solution so dreaded by the likes of the fully health-insured Republican presidential candidate ex-Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Oddly, when he presided over ‘health care reform’ in Massachusetts he signed off on a plan that is very similar to Senator Clinton’s. Hmmm.

Alas, this society is so driven by the imperatives of the capitalist profit motive in all its social policies, even a fundamental one such as health, that such an eminently reasonable notion as free universal health care today has no pray of being advocated much less fought for in mainstream politics. Thus, others place militants in a position of evaluating any health care proposal on whether it drives us toward that above-stated goal. While recognizing that these proposals are not our program any such steps that take some of the profit motive out of the system and expand both the numbers covered and the quality of coverage are steps in the right direction. If such a system actually came into existence we would defend it against right-wing attempts to eliminate it in the same way we defend Social Security against such attempts. We would also raise propaganda around extending benefits and numbers insured. However realistically speaking, once the big business and AMA guns go after this, it looks like such proposals face the same tough sledding as the last efforts at reform in 1993.

Sunday, September 16, 2007




As I have noted in previous reviews of the work of Professor Hill although both the parliamentary and royalist sides in the English Revolution, the major revolutionary event of the 17th century, quoted the Bible, particularly the newer English versions, for every purpose from an account of the Fall to the virtues of primitive communism that revolution cannot be properly understood except as a secular revolution. The first truly secular revolution of modern times. The late pre-eminent historian of the under classes of the English Revolution Professor Hill has taken the myriad ideas, serious and zany, that surfaced during the period between 1640-60, the heart of the revolutionary period and analyzed their contemporary importance. Moreover, he has given us, as far as the surviving records permit, what happened to those ideas, the people who put them forth and their various reactions to the defeat of their ideas in the late revolutionary period and at the Restoration. And through it all hovers Hill’s ever present muse for the period, John Milton- the poet who tried to explain in verse the 'ways of God' to humankind at the failure of the ‘revolution of the saints’.

As been noted by more than one historian there is sometimes a disconnect between the ideas in the air at any particular time and the way those ideas get fought out in political struggle. In this case secular ideas, or what would have passed for such to us, like the questions of the divinity of the monarch, of social, political and economic redistribution and the nature of the new society (the second coming) were expressed in familiar religious terms. That being the case there is no better guide to understanding the significance of the mass of biblically-driven literary articles and some secular documents produced in the period than Professor Hill. Here we meet up again, as we have in Hill's other numerous volumes of work, with the democratic oppositionists, the Levelers; the Diggers, especially the thoughts of their leader Gerrard Winstanley, in many aspects the forerunner of a modern branch of communist thought; the Ranters, Seekers and Quakers who among them challenged every possible orthodox Christian theory and the usual cast of individual political and religious radicals like Samuel Fisher and, my personal favorite, Abiezer Coppe.

As I have noted elsewhere a key to understanding that plebian entry onto history's stage and that underscores the widespread discussion of many of these trends is Cromwell's New Model Army where the plebian base and the frustrated professional middle class, for a time anyway, had serious input into the direction that society might take. Some fellow historians have criticized Hill on the question of how important this was in the overall scheme of things but the last word on the impact of those ideas and their influence has not been spoken. In any case, as these radicals were moved to the margins of political society they had various reactions familiar as well in later revolutions- passivity, silence, a personally opportunistic acceptance of the new order and, in too few cases, a fight to save the revolutionary gains. In many ways Professor Hill's book is a study of what happened when for lack of a better term, the Thermodorian reaction- the ebb of the revolution set in and a portion of those 'masterless' men had to deal with the consequences of defeat for the plebian masses during the Protectorate and Restoration. The heroic attempts to save the revolution in danger by the Fifth Monarchy uprisings, composed of former soldiers, and the return of Quakers to the Army in 1659 only underscore that point. Those of us on today’s embattled plebian left now know we had some honorable predecessors.